Leaving their comfort zone
By Allen Palmeri
August 12, 2003
Missouri Baptist youth lead the charge to evangelize inner-city St. Louis
EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. — Bob Caldwell strides through the doors of New Life Community Church in the heart of East St. Louis, home of the two poorest zip codes in the United States. As state evangelism director for the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC), he walks with the confidence of a boxer emboldened by his entourage.
God immediately calls upon Caldwell to throw a spiritual right jab at the Vacation Bible School (VBS) registration table. The VBS was a collaborative effort of several St. Louis-area ministries and the MBC.
"Will you talk to these guys?" says a girl working the table. Caldwell takes a moment to size up the situation before boldly communicating Christ.
Two black boys from the inner city have been listening to the girl at the table testify. If we do find your Jesus, they wonder, do we have to give up sex?
Caldwell wants to see them pursue the sorrow according to the will of God that produces repentance. He tells the boys to come to the Father like a child admitting he has a skinned knee. Let Him clean up the blood, Caldwell says. Giving up sex can then be a part of the cleansing.
A member of the entourage, Doug Bischoff, has seen it all before. This is what happens when Springfield-based Global Encounter Ministries, which Caldwell founded in 1992, comes to town.
"There are a lot of neighborhoods here, they don’t know the Gospel," said Bischoff, associate pastor, Springhill Baptist Church, Springfield. "Like those boys, they were asking, ‘Do we need to give up sex? How do we do that? I can’t imagine doing that!’
"Well, of course they can’t. If they’ve never come to know the Lord, they can’t imagine doing that."
Meanwhile, it is Thursday night of VBS. Across the Mississippi River, at Grace Baptist Church on the corner of Newhouse Avenue and 11th Street next to the dull roar of Interstate 70 in downtown St. Louis, a couple of white girls from Kearney begin witnessing to seven black teen-agers. They lift the seven up in prayer.
Emily Hamlin and Andrea Goss are way out of their comfort zone. The little town of Kearney has a grand total of three black people, says Emily, 17. So when she and Andrea worship at First Baptist Church, Kearney, worshippers are predictably suburban white.
But Emily and Andrea are bold. Their prayers are answered when all seven receive Christ. What takes place in the Grace sanctuary that night is representative of what takes place all over the metropolitan area during the July 25-Aug. 1 outreach. When all was said, 292 people received Christ at 15 participating sites.
Training the next generation
Of the 500 or so students serving as missionaries in St. Louis for the evangelistic effort, 75 percent come from Missouri Baptist churches. The rest come from Illinois, Kansas, Oklahoma and Wisconsin, wanting to be a part of a movement that is larger than anything any of them can even imagine.
"Have you ever really felt the Holy Spirit so thick in a room?" Emily asks rhetorically, struggling to describe the power that filled the room when the seven teen-agers got saved. "It was like this rush like you couldn’t even explain it. It was insane. Like, I didn’t want to look up. I heard all these people walk over to the other side of the room, and I just started crying."
This is what Caldwell calls training the next generation. Young missionaries like Emily learn how to cooperate with the Holy Spirit as they lead the lost to Christ. There are no frills. The method boils down to true, transformational evangelism as Peter and John did it in Acts 4.
"You’re allowing us to train the next generation of Christian leaders," Caldwell likes to tell the inner city pastors he meets.
An evangelist with a rhythm that beats from the heart of Missouri, Caldwell founded Global Encounter out of a passion for missions. In 1998, with a pure heart and a common focus on the inner cities of St. Louis and Houston, Texas, Global Encounter entered into a formal partnership in field training with First Baptist Church, Houston. In 2004, the movement will set up a third strategic base in Kansas City.
Caldwell used to function like a seven-ball juggler trained to toss only five. In other words, he realized he had to drop a ball or two so the movement could expand. By coming on board as MBC evangelism director June 1, he dropped a ball. It is all about training the next generation.
Birthing a movement?
Jerrell Altic, 24, is a trim, athletic leader. Not only has he picked up the ball that Caldwell had to drop, he is dribbling it like he means business. A point guard who was reared in Missouri, Jerrell serves as a preacher, teacher, evangelist, friend, discipler, motivator and coordinator for the inner city evangelistic effort. His formal title is field trainer.
Having grown up in the youth group at Caldwell’s old church, Springhill, and with his official church title of associate minister of missions at FBC, Houston, Jerrell is empowered by the Holy Spirit on some authentically magnificent levels.
"It’s humbling," he says.
How does it feel, then, to be a poster boy for such a cause?
"When God is birthing a movement, He raises up people," says Jerrell with a confidence that makes him seem like a National Basketball Association point guard. "I never thought when I was a high school student, going to Houston for my very first mission trip, leading my first person to Christ, I never thought I was going to be one of the arms helping it march forward."
He serves at his church alongside popular author and speaker Beth Moore, another Spirit-led teacher who is on the cutting edge of women’s ministry in Southern Baptist life. This St. Louis-Houston-Kansas City thing is just like that, Jerrell says.
"The heart of her ministry was birthed out of great leaders who have blessed her and said, ‘Walk in all that God is doing,’" Jerrell says. "The great thing about it is that she’s a Sunday School teacher, and her ministry, which is worldwide, is kind of the same thing we have here. It is the Holy Spirit breathing into the heart of great leadership, passing the baton, saying we want to do something that nobody else is doing. We’re really training the next generation on the mission field."
In boxing terms, Jerrell would be a light heavyweight and Caldwell would be a heavyweight. Guess which one has a bigger entourage? It’s no contest.
"What he’s poured into me I want to continue to pour into other people," Jerrell says, putting first things first when it comes to his respect for Caldwell.
Divide and conquer
Military terminology works well in describing Caldwell’s approach to inner-city evangelism, an approach taken straight from Acts 1:8.
Caldwell’s philosophy is to split the entire battalion of missionaries in half to give each company a lieutenant for the entire week. Altic teaches his missionaries out of First Baptist Church, Ferguson, on the Missouri side; Danny Dyer of Kansas City, a 23-year-old student out of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, drills the other group at First Baptist Church, O’Fallon, Ill.
Caldwell says he likes to assign one teacher to each group for the entire time. During the week that they are actually out in the field, this type of teaching builds on itself, creating a synergy that compels the young missionaries to excel in evangelism.
"They’re getting fed on that whole training weekend, every night they’re getting trained, and then they’re on the field during the day, feeding," Jerrell says. "So they’re not only getting fed spiritually, but they’re feeding. There’s just a huge dynamic that takes place.
"It’s just the movement of the Holy Spirit born into us and we’re pouring it out. You can’t explain the Holy Spirit. You just stand in awe and say, ‘God, You are a miracle worker!’"
A neighborhood in need
Devin Wilhite and Michael Wilcox are 15-year-old missionaries who come from First Baptist Church, Branson. Their assignment for the week while in St. Louis is to pursue souls at 15th Street Baptist Church on the city’s east side in Illinois.
"It was a real eye-opener for me," says Wilhite, "seeing how badly that neighborhood needed Christ."
The church is in a "drug-infested area," says its pastor, Andrew Prowell. The liquor store across the street features two huge beer signs that light up at dusk. Around the corner is a pool hall.
The church is small, with 10-15 adults and 30-40 children, Prowell says. The parking lot is unpaved.
"Across the street they deal drugs," he adds. "At one time I used to be a drug addict, and God delivered me."
By the grace of God, 105 registered for VBS. Prowell was so blessed he ran out of classroom space.
"We even used the pantry. We made that a classroom."
The youth of First, Branson, went the extra mile by cleaning up some rooms that were "in shambles," Prowell says. Old carpet, computers and chairs had to be removed before some classes could even be taught. Wilcox says one room even had a dead animal in it.
"Some days we’d go and there’d be cop cars flying down the road, going to the park, doing whatever down there," Wilhite says. "It’s definitely different."
Both of these white, suburban boys led souls to Christ. Wilcox spoke for Wilhite when he attested to the colorless power of love that transformed a little boy in a class where he teaches.
"Wow, they need love so much," Wilcox says. "Even the least bit of love that you show them, they just soak it all up and they just keep wanting more and more. It’s just amazing how much they can just hang all over you.
"I thought he was going to be the worst kid there. He was kind of shy, and then when he did speak up, he was kind of rambunctious. But when we got to talking to him, he was like, ‘I want to become a Christian, I want Jesus, I want Jesus. That devil’s bad!’
"He came to know the Lord."
Thomas Gasaway, 17, of the First Baptist Church, St. Clair youth group was struck by all of the poverty. Still, he was undeterred. After all he went through on this unusually uncomfortable training exercise, he considers himself to be a part of the next generation — the trained ones.
"We were going up and witnessing to some people in East St. Louis, and we walked up to this house," Thomas says. "There was this horrible stench. I talked to my youth pastor’s wife, and she said that it was like a dead rat. That’s just how they live. There’s so much trash, not a lot of caring. Nobody was home. We left a tract."
A high calling
What kind of things can white boys and girls from rural and suburban Missouri learn from such mission endeavors?
"The primary thing that I learned is, ‘Don’t be scared,’" Gasaway says. "Do not fear about going up and asking your friends to go to church, because that’s nothing. We were walking around in East St. Louis, for crying out loud."
For Emily Hamlin, the 17-year-old girl from Kearney who cooperated so sweetly with the Holy Spirit as those seven black teens she was praying for came to Christ, the application was loud and clear.
"It’s bigger than Kearney," Emily says. "Because I’m a Christian, I’m called out to share Him. It’s so important. That’s my job. That’s why I’m here on earth. It’s widened my vision a lot."